William Bryan’s memories of the Great War

Eileen writes: In the 1960s my grandfather, William Bryan, recorded interview for the BBC recalling some of his war time memories. Unfortunately, I do not have a recording of it. (If anyone can find a copy in the BBC archives, I’d love to hear it.) However, I do have Grandad’s own handwritten notes for the interview, which I have transcribed below, with some light editing for clarity.

A brief outline of my war experiences whilst serving with the 91st Siege battery R.G.A. From its formation in Dec 1915 to Nov 1918.

By Frederick William Bryan

William Bryan as a young man

Enlisting at Doncaster 8-11-1915, four of us, all coal miners at Bullcroft Colliery, Doncaster — all volunteers.

The first taste of army discipline we had at the recruiting offices. Three of us were told we were of required height, etc, for artillery work, but the fourth man was too small. He couldn’t pass, so we all decided: all four of us or none. The recruiting sergeant, not wanting to miss his commission for four, finally said, “I’ll get the small one through,” and he did. We were in the army.

In December 1915 the 91st siege Battery was formed at Plymouth, composed of volunteers from all over England, even as far away as Aberdeen and the Orkneys and Ireland too. Our commanding officer was Major W. Christian D.S.O., and a very fine sportsman he proved to be. We got together a fine football team, playing many games, and it looked cheeky on our part to challenge the Guards in London and Horsham, our team winning 2-0 and 4-0. The team and Battery were getting talked about and this spirit lasted throughout the war.

William Bryan (middle row, second from right) and his army football team

Leaving Plymouth, the Battery moved to Horsham where training began in earnest. Our next move was in April 1916 to Lydd for intensive training and shooting on 6 inch and 8 inch Howitzers. We were now ready for our part in the great adventure. Having been equipped with 9ft 2 inch Howitzers, everyone was pleased and felt as big as these guns. Later we were to have experiences, both sad and amusing.

In May we proceeded to Bristol to mobilize and soon to Woolwich to draw guns and stores. While in Bristol after training on our new guns, route marches were done and these proved to be popular especially with the ladies. On these occasions we took with us our mascot, a real Shetland pony owned by one of the officers, a Scot. Led by two of our biggest men, the pony only 29 inches high, we were a familiar sight, and the two grooms had a few invitations out to tea from the ladies, providing they brought along the pony. Alas, the pony had to return to Scotland before we moved to Le Havre via Southampton.

William’s battery at Lydd, April, 1916. The pony is at the front on the left. William is in the second to back row, circled. (Open in a new tab to view at larger size.)

Arriving in France, we stayed at various camps and on June 3rd marched to our first position, a village named Pommier. The inhabitants were still in the village (later nothing remained of it). Our guns had to be mounted at night to avoid being seen by airmen. Hard work in the dark, the guns being trained on hostile trenches etc at Gommecourt.

Our guns were mounted under apple trees in an orchard, and during firing hundreds of apples came down on us. In this position, an old disused well was found. The oldest inhabitant knew nothing about it. In front of Number 2 gun, it was 105 ft deep with 3ft of water at the bottom. 70ft down were chambers from which chalk had been mined. Use was made of this mine and the miners in the Battery were working day and night making recesses for a B.C. post, telephone exchanges, and room for all the personnel. All this took about three weeks and was the safest cover we had out there.

Everything now was being got ready for something big, and it proved to be July 1st, the Somme Battle. About the end of June we were unlucky. All guns in action, when a round from No 2 gun sounded queer. The shell (each weighing two and a half cwt) had exploded in the bore 3ft in the muzzle. The gun was later condemned after inspection and replaced by another gun from another battery. Luckily we had no casualties. It was here that I saw for the first and last time, a soldier doing 28 days field punishment. No 1 consisted of being tied to a gun wheel, like a cruciform and then after a time marched up and down carrying full army kit, a very sorry sight to all.

Came July 1st and the memorable Battle of the Somme. We were very busy firing on targets and many hostile batteries were wiped out by our guns. In all, about 800 rounds were fired by our guns on July 1st, each shell weighing two and a half cwt. I myself fired 91 rounds from gun No 1. About the 3rd or 4th July a number of shells were fired into our Battery, one of them thought to be a dud. The sergeant in charge of a party of us commenced digging this out. The shell burst underground making a good-sized hole. Gunner R. went into the cavity holding the sergeant’s hands. When inside Gunner R. collapsed. Gunner T. then went in and with difficulty raised Gunner R. to be pulled out. Gunner T. then collapsed. Bombardier C. went in but collapsed before he could get Gunner T. out. Lieutenants T. and S. put gas masks on and went in and with great difficulty got T. and C. out. Sergeant K. and three men were all unconscious with gas and took some time to recover.

During the intense bombardment by our own guns at the rate of two rounds per minute, it was found to be too much and the guns had to be overhauled. More target firing both day and night through July, August, and September. The weather now was bad. Wet, slush, and mud knee-deep round the guns and ammunition. Ordered to move out in October to a new position at Mailly-Mailly. Before leaving Pommise we had a good laugh. Living in the village was a dirty and villainous looking French peasant. He appeared one day in a clean shirt and for several days was gloriously drunk. Investigations as to his sudden wealth disclosed the fact that he had put in a claim for 550 Francs for alleged damage to the remains of his cottage. He has sold his interest in the claim for 100 Francs and was spending the proceeds. Needless to say his claim was not upheld.

Our new position in the battered village of Mailly-Mailly wasn’t very healthy. We had arrived to take part in the capture of the Beaumont Hotel, which ended the Battle of the Somme. Our shelling took part every day and night, the enemy retiring underground as soon as we started.

This ruse was a complete success and large numbers of Huns were found buried alive in the deep trenches. From November 13th to 22nd the battery had been in action over ten days. During this action, the breach of No. 2 gun blew out, wounding Lieut C. and killing three other ranks. The breach block was blown out about 500 yards to the rear of the gun and the shell remained in the bore wedged about 4ft from the muzzle. The gun was taken behind our lines and a full charge put in. The shell came out into a hillside, no damage was done and the gun was used a long time after in action. At the end of 1917 our B.S. Major Newton left on discharge after 36 years service aged 56. A fine old soldier and always smart. One day at Horsham he was giving a lecture on hygiene and cleanliness, telling us how any one of us could get ITCH on our hands from handling various tools etc. He said “Smart men get it. I had it.” At that there was a great laugh. He had a real adornment under his nose, like our present Jimmy Edwards.

We were withdrawn from the line about the middle of Feb 1917, having been in the line since June 1916. After that it was Arras and Messines and all objectives captured including Vimy Ridge. We were ordered to get a couple of guns into position near Bailleue-Arras road. All the roads were shell-pitted, impossible for lorries. Lieut S. dismounted No. 2 gun at 10pm and reported the gun in action by 5am next morning. A great feat with one caterpillar, a couple of hand carts and some stout hearts. We had fired many rounds and had many fired back at us and with some casualties to our side. In Arras the officer’s mess was blown in by a shell. When the shell arrived all occupants of the premises made a dive for the cellar. Ten seconds later the mess waiter remembered a bottle of whisky had been left on the table. He went to see if it was safe just in time to see the whisky vanishing through the hole in the wall. Some Scotchmen were billeted next door. Time from shell to vanishing whisky: 20 seconds.

On to Belgium now, all flat country, dykes and canals. All four guns were behind a Belgium farm. As soon as we opened up on targets, we were treated to real bombardment from the enemy. Sergeant B. Carrol was killed here on his day of promotion. He was a grand chap and one of the grooms who looked after our mascot in England. I have a small photo of his grave in Pervysee with a cross and a wooden model of a gun made by the Battery carpenter. It was here that I learned to swim in the canal. Bombardier Bradshaw and others fixed up some diving boards on the canal banks right outside the officers’ mess. Everybody was enjoying the water. Someone suggested a race of 100 yards in the canal. Someone for fun entered me in a heat and I was given the most start (although I couldn’t swim then). We got into the boat (all naked), the officer holding his watch. “Now Bryan, do you want to dive in or just walk in?” “I’ll dive in, Sir.” “Right. Go.” In I went and nearly drowned, the others were at the finish when I recovered.

On another occasion at the same spot, we had been shelled out and got orders to clear out. We went lower down the canal to a pub and had a few drinks while the shelling ceased. On our way back my pal says, “I’ll give you 10 francs if you will dive off the top board,” but I had to turn a somersault before I hit the water. (He had seen a sergeant doing this.) It was getting dusk, and I didn’t like the idea. Up on the plank I went, naked as usual. All the other officers came out and wanted to know about the noise being made. “Bryan is diving off the top board, Sir,” someone said. They all stayed and I turned over before hitting the water. Had I been sober I would never have attempted it. Anyway my pal gave me the ten francs and we went next night and spent it in the pub. This lad was later killed behind me when I was gassed.

The end of 1917 saw us moving again to another front, Vendelles and Jeancourt. Here we had more casualties and after having pulled out we were told later the enemy had occupied our position. Gunner O. was killed here and about 35 other casualties, all suffering from the effects of gas. This is when I left the Battery having been gassed etc.

The list of casualties:

  • 3 officers killed
  • 16 ordinary ranks killed
  • 5 officers and 81 O.R’s wounded and gassed
  • 3 O.R’s died of influenza
  • Total 108

I was told after of a very sad day for the 91st Battery. A few shells had been fired and a lot came back, all 8 inch. Lieut A., Sergeant E., Bombardier N., Gunner G., and Gunner McCullough took refuge in a cellar under a house, together with nine French civilians. A shell hit the house and the cellar collapsed. Bombardier Bradshaw and Gunner Fletcher among the rescuers at great risk before the shelling ceased. Desperate efforts were made to reach the children, but it was seven hours before the last bodies were reached. All the civilians were killed except a girl of 15, Maria Louise Lariche. She was a heroine, only her head being free and gave useful help telling the rescuers the structure of the cellar. The bodies of her mother, brothers and sisters, and grandparents were all removed before her eyes. All the trapped soldiers were killed — only one survivor out of 14 buried by the shell. Lieut N., Bombardier Bradshaw, and Gunner Fletcher were suitably rewarded.

Gunner F. W. Bryan 67326 R.G.A

Posted in Eileen's memories.


  1. TEDDY the Shetland Pony owned by Lieut Neilson With the “black armband” in memory of his brother. Please let me know if you want a photograph of Teddy and his grooms taken at Lydd April.

    Mike Reeve

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